Oh Uncle Gene, the pipes, the pipes are calling
One year ago on this night I was at my cousins house as his father, my great-uncle Gene, was on hospice and preparing to meet the Lord. In my heart I knew that an era was ending – the last of my Grandma’s siblings was leaving this world. The Quarter Irish blood coursing through my veins told me that I needed to view this in a positive light – my Uncle Tubby (as we affectionately called him) would soon be reunited with his wife and the rest of the Atkinson clan in Heaven. We would mourn but Heaven would rejoice.
I was overwhelmed with sadness; so many wonderful warm memories from my childhood came flooding back. Here I was, his physician, at his bedside to make sure he was comfortable. As his great-nephew, I knelt and prayed the rosary bedside of the man whom I loved as a Grandfather-like figure. He walked on water in my eyes.
You see my great-uncle, Eugene Atkinson, was both a charismatic Irishman and a consummate politician whom many would call a gentleman. He had a list of professional accomplishments in his life – serving his country in the Navy, being appointed by JFK to director of customs for the Port of Pittsburgh, elected Beaver County Commissioner, and eventually two-term US Congressman from Pennsylvania’s (former) 25th district. Beyond that, he helped so many people in innumerable ways. To this day people share stories of how they would not have gotten that job or summer internship had my uncle not advocated for them.
I was always in awe of him for more than just his life’s journey. When he told a story, he did so with such intricate detail and clarity. It was the Irish in him – great story tellers those Irish! My brother and I could sit and listen to him recall various life events for hours – tales from the Navy, his friendship with President Reagan, or the family stories of growing up as an Atkinson in Aliquippa. As we grew up aside from Grandma, my Uncle Jack and Gene were the only two great-uncles I had left. Sitting at the Thanksgiving table was quite a treat – there was something magical that they shared, this Irish bond. Some stories had us in stitches and I never wanted Thanksgiving night to end. My Grandma’s siblings all meant so much to me and they still do.
My Grandma Thomasine was the youngest of five – Jack, Catherine (Aunt “Teet”), Frank, Gene (Uncle “Tubby), and then Grandma. My Uncle Frank was the first to pass June 11, 1994, followed by Aunt Teet July 27, 1994. I was only 13 but I saw how brokenhearted my Grandma was. When my Uncle Jack passed on July 8, 2012, Grandma and Uncle Tubby were all I had left. Eventually Grandma passed January 19, 2016 and then Uncle Tubby August 4, 2017. Why do I remember these dates? Because I loved my Irish family so much… and you know something?… I still do and always will.
As I am typing this, I am sitting in the rocking chair that belonged to their mother (my Great-Grandmother). It has other sentimental value – I was rocked to sleep by my Grandma as a baby in this very chair. I have rocked my own Lily to sleep in this chair and will rock the twins to sleep in it. I treasure this heirloom as I gravitate towards it when I pray, when I seek heavenly wisdom, or want to quietly ask my Grandma and her siblings to pray for me.
Rocking back and forth in this chair, I can’t help but wonder what they (The Atkinsons) are doing together in heaven. Having Sunday dinner perhaps? I used to hear stories of them having Sunday dinner after mass. Faith and St. Titus Church were a big part of their upbringing. I think it’s why I have recently developed an affinity for “Blue Bloods” on CBS. In each episode Tom Selleck (Frank Reagan) and his family sit around the Sunday dinner table and engage one another. It’s a central theme in the show just as it was in the real life of the Atkinsons. I like to imagine that my Great-Uncle was the last guest to arrive for dinner last August 4th.
I close with the song that has been on my mind all week, maybe the rest of the family was singing this when Uncle Tubby arrived to dinner on August 4, 2016…
The summer’s gone and all the roses falling,
Its you must go and I must bide
But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow.
Its ill be here in sunshine or in shadow
Oh Danny Boy, oh Danny Boy, I love you so.
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